How to exploit the full learning potential of a target language song in the MFL classrooms

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How to exploit the full learning potential of a target language song in the L2 classroom

I have observed many lessons in which classic or contemporary songs were used. However, I have rarely come out of those lessons feeling that the full learning potential of that song had been exploited. This article attempts at providing a principled approach to the ‘linguistic’ exploitation of a song. This should not be taken, of course, as the only or best possible blueprint for exploiting a song as a learning enhancement tool. I am sure there are many other ways that I have not explored yet.

What do we mean by exploiting the full potential of a song as a learning enhancer?

By this I mean that:

  1. all or vast majority of the most useful vocabulary in it is learnt (productively or receptively) through masses of recycling;
  2. any interesting grammar point in the song is also focused on and learnt (productively or receptively);
  3. any useful piece of cultural information is passed on to the students and possibly elaborated upon;
  4. top-down processing (reading) skills are practised in order to comprehend unfamiliar language; e.g. the students use inferring strategies using their background knowledge of the theme(s) and situational context of the song;
  5. bottom-up processing (reading) skills are practised to use the linguistic context to infer meaning. This does not simply include using known vocabulary to infer the meaning of text, but also basing one’s intelligent ‘guesses’ on grammatical, syntactic and phonological cues;
  6. the lyrics are used as a springboard for a discussion (in the target language) of the themes of the song;
  7. although the song is not listened to in the context of a comprehension task, it is used to model pronunciation.

A nine-step framework for the exploitation of a song

Step 1: select the ‘right’ song

These are the most important principles one should heed when selecting a song for optimal learning enhancement:

i. Comprehensible input: choose a song which you believe is linguistically accessible – with some support – to the target students;

ii Linguistic relevance: select a song which is relevant to the linguistic goals of the target students, i.e. that contains lexis and grammar which is related to what the learning outcomes of the lesson and/or unit-in-hand are;

iii ‘Cultural’ relevance and sensitivity: by ‘cultural’ here I do not mean the culture of the country, but rather the relevance to the sub-culture of the students they ‘belong’ to. For instance, if the group you are teaching is mainly composed of teen age rugby players ‘with an attitude’ you would not choose a romantic song stigmatized in their sub-culture as a ‘girl song’. By the same token one must be careful not to choose a song whose lyrics and/or official youtube video contain culturally insensitive material. This is crucial when working in an international school or other multi-ethnic environment. It may be useful, before using a song in class, to play it to two or three students of the same age as and similar ability to the ones you are going to work on that song with. Their feedback might be a lifesaver!

iv Surrender value: the song should have vocabulary which is worth learning, i.e. that has high surrender value. This will include mainly high frequency vocabulary and phrases;

v. Availability of relevant multimedia resources; it is practical to choose a song whose lyrics, L1 translation and video are available online and free. The lyrics available on the internet should always be checked thoroughly as they more than often contain spelling errors or small omissions.

Step 2 – Pre-listening activities for schemata activation

In order to activate the learners’ previous knowledge and the language related to the themes and semantic areas the song taps into, the learners should be engaged in a series of tasks which, whilst recycling vocabulary they have already processed before (in previous lessons), engage them on some kind of reflection on the song’s themes. For instance, on a lesson centred on Kenza Farah’s song ‘Sans jamais de plaindre’, which deals with the theme of parent’s daily sacrifices for their children, in the first activity I staged (see my worksheet at:–sans-jamais-se-plaindre-by-kenza-6355137 ) I asked the students to:

  1. Brainstorm and write down in French, working in groups of two, five sacrifices parents usually make for their children;
  2. Think about three people in their own families and list the sacrifices they have made in recent years to help them;
  3. List the qualities of the ideal father, mother and sibling.

Just as I have done in this lesson, this kind of activities should elicit language, in their execution, which is very relevant to or even equivalent to the one in the song.

Step 3 – Pre-listening activities to facilitate bottom-up processes during the in-listening phase

At this point, the teacher may want focus on facilitating the students’ understanding of the text through activities which involve working on the key lexis included in the song’s lyrics. These activities will involve semantic analysis of that lexis through split sentences activities, gapped sentences, odd one outs, matching exercises, etc. In the example given above, for instance, I took key sentences from the lyrics and recycled them (see the second page in the hand-out) through five vocabulary building, reading skills and semantic/syntactic analysis activities.

Step 4 – Listening to the song for pleasure

You should let the students listen to the song for pure enjoyment the first time around; then ask them to do any in-listening tasks. You may want to challenge them to recognize, while listening, as many of the words/phrases they have just processed as possible.

Step 5 – In-listening activities

At this stage the learners are given a gapped version of the lyrics of the song, where the words are provided aside. In order not to overload the students, I usually place a gap every two lines. If I want to emphasize a specific sound pattern I draw the students’ attention to it by removing words that rhyme, chime or alliterate with one another containing that sound. After listening to the song three or four times, show them the complete version of the lyrics on the screen and ask to check and correct/fill in any missing gap

Step 6 – Working on specific phonemes

After the students have filled in all the gaps, produce or play a recording of specific sounds that you know they struggle with (e.g. [œ]) and ask them to highlight/circle them. Do the same with other phonemes, making sure that they use a different highlighting/coding system for each sound. Then play the song again asking them to focus on the specific letters they highlighted

Step 7 – Reading comprehension

At this point get them to work on reading comprehension through activities such as the ones on my worksheet (above) and/or jigsaw reading, work on synonyms/antonyms, word/phrase hunt or even translation (with and able and motivated group). These activities will recycle the vocabulary.

Step 8 – Grammar

when the learners have been acquainted with most of the vocabulary and the intended meaning of the song, it will be easy for them to process the grammar. Thus, at this stage one can get the students to engage with this level of the text by asking them to:

  1. identify the different tenses/moods in the text;
  2. categorize items into the parts of speech they belong to;
  3. ask metalinguistic questions (e.g., in French or Spanish: why is an imperfect used here rather than a perfect tense?)

Step 9 – Plenary

At this point, I usually conclude with one or both of the following plenary activities:

  1. Reflecting on the value of using songs for learning – Ask them to reflect on how songs, based on what you have just done with them, can be valuable for language learning and ask for suggestions on how they could benefit by listening to them independently. You can follow this up by providing them with lists of singers/songs they might enjoy or by giving them the task to find a French band/solo artist they like (to share with the rest of the class in the next lesson).
  2. Vocabulary quizzes to verify how much has been retained at this stage in the lesson.

Ideally, you will recycle the key vocabulary ‘learnt’ in the process in order to secure long-term retention in the next lesson.